As the Inside-Out Abaya Protest Grows, Fears of Crackdown by Saudi Government

On November 10, 2018, Twitter user @Nikkaal tweeted a picture of her inside-out outer garment, including the caption: “As a #Saudi woman, I don’t enjoy the freedom to cloth. I am forced by the law to wear Abaya (black robe) everywhere but my house, which. I. can’t. take. any. more.”

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The abaya that this woman references is not a burka (the covering robe of Afghanistan) or a chador (Iran). Rather, it is a neck-down garment that covers the entire body aside from the head, feet and hands, almost like a graduation gown or a judge’s robes. But similarly to the burka and the chador, it is an obligatory body-shrouding robe.

The abaya is a larger part of the conservative Islamic law that governs Saudi Arabia. It dictates to women (and to society as a whole) the necessity of modest dress, reliance on male guardians, and public sex-based segregation. This castigation of women is a generally new phenomenon: faced with legitimacy-threatening Islamist movements of the 1980s, the Saudi government shifted towards an imposition of conservative Islam. This means that the “laws” requiring abayas are based on social norms, previously dictated by one’s region, class, family, and tribal standards. The unofficial basis of ‘modest dress’ is a sentiment highlighted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: “The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent respectful attire she chooses to wear.” While the Crown Prince suggests that women are in no way obliged to wear the abaya, his Riyadh police force shows no stipulation in arresting a woman for wearing ‘suggestive clothing’: a short skirt and slightly midriff-baring shirt. Despite a lack of formal laws, women feel compelled to wear the abaya, a compulsion that is upheld by the police.

To speak out against societal pressure and to assert women’s rights in general, Saudi women are wearing the abaya inside out, posting pictures with the accompanying #insideoutabaya.

Though this movement represents an extraordinary civil protest against a patriarchal petri-state, the women pushing against the status quo could face considerable backlash from the government. This may come in the form of smear campaigns, detainment or even corporal punishment. The enthusiastic coverage of the protest by Western media outlets may bring international attention to their situation, but in the long-term, may even exacerbate administrative maltreatment.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (dubbed MBS by various media outlets) is the youngest man to run the Saudi Arabian kingdom in decades. Despite being the contemporary leader of an authoritarian regime, he has meticulously crafted the image of a benevolent reformer, outlining in his ambitious Vision 2030 his desire “to unlock the potential of the Saudi people.” He stresses continuously his commitment to Saudi women, his effort to liberalize society, to diversify the economy, and loosen the reach of the conservative clergy. This liberalization policy and benevolent reformist agenda has been well-received by both the international and domestic community. Western media praise for the lifting of the female driving ban in 2017 benefitted more to MBS’s image as a reformer than the yearly fortune Saudi Arabia spends on public relations. Following this positive media boom, the Saudi monarchy has even claimed to be “verging on a great feminist leap forward.”

This idealized agenda, however, hides behind a dangerous veil: at the end of the day, Vision 2030 is simply smoke and mirrors to distract from the opaqueness of the Saudi state.

In tandem with his image of popular liberal benevolence, the Saudi state has cracked down on dissenters, critics, activists; anyone who actually does push for a reformed society. While MBS announced the lifting of the travel ban, prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Halthloul was lifted off the streets of the United Arab Emirates and detained in Saudi Arabia. She was later charged (along with at least six other activists) as a national threat for contact with malicious foreign entities. In addition to these detainments, Saudi officials and government-aligned media launched a smear campaign to discredit the actions of these women, leading many to speculate that the government aimed to take full responsibility for any widely-praised reform. In a similar fashion, the Saudi Arabian government most likely (unconfirmed) orchestrated the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent dissenter against the Saudi state and columnist for the Washington Post. Non-Saudi critics are not safe either; after the Canadian foreign ministry urged Riyadh to release arrested dissidents, Saudi authorities expelled the Canadian ambassador and suspended trade and investment deals.

The push for liberal reform and an unrelenting crackdown seem contradictory. But behind these seemingly counteractive messages is a more calculated approach: maintaining social control, painting a positive international image and balancing conservative and liberal domestic forces.

Through his crackdowns, the Crown Prince is sending the message that he will only tolerate change direct and credited to the government. Any reformers that aim to overshadow his liberal shift and good publicity are automatically deemed adversarial to the state, as a threat that needs to be contained. This is also his way of permeating the lives of his citizens, of sending them a discreet but definitive message that their lives are ultimately subject to the whims of the state. Only enacting change in line with his agenda is MBS’s way of realizing Migdal’s strong state: one that subordinates people’s own inclinations to mobilize them in support of state goals.

In discrediting any activists, MBS also gains the title of reformist champion, with all credit being automatically attributed to him. This, in general, means that he can shape a positive image around the Saudi kingdom, encouraging investment and good diplomatic relations. This goal is facilitated by the fact that the current United States administration has been scant on criticising Saudi Arabia: it seems that the outside world prefers to remain in Saudi Arabia’s good graces to ensure that this influential kingdom decisively turns against the spread of intolerant Islamic ideology.

MBS’s conflicting messages also are a clever tactic to balance different divisive forces within his state. To appease the liberal forces, he puts on the face of popular reformer. For conservative clerics, he shows unrelenting crackdown against dissidents of conservative Islamic values.

The Crown Prince’s propensity to embrace superficial reform while discrediting and punishing legitimate reformers seems to be an ongoing pattern, a tenet of the current administration. Given the ways that he has responded to women’s rights activists speaking out against the travel ban, the Canadian foreign ministry, and a prominent Washington Post columnist, it is likely (if the movement gains enough ground) that the women sporting inside-out abayas may face trouble further down the road. They may find that the same man who champions societal reform will forcibly ensure that they remain within the constraints of the status quo they are so brilliantly speaking out against.

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